“Parents who are expecting a baby typically envision a healthy new addition to their family, but that doesn’t always happen,” says Lisa Diez, a neonatal intensive care nurse and manager of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
Most babies are born full term around 39 weeks. But in the U.S., about 11% are born premature or needing special care. Sharp Grossmont’s Level III NICU provides around-the-clock care for newborns who are critically ill or born premature, with specialized doctors, nurses and other skilled staff. The unit serves more than 400 families every year.
“A baby born too soon, too small or with medical complications requires intensive care. It can be an overwhelming time for parents,” says Diez. “The NICU’s job is to support those families and ensure their little ones get the special attention they need to help get them healthy.”
Little Maida’s NICU journey
The Walker family knows firsthand how emotional the experience can be. Their daughter, Maida, was born six weeks premature in summer 2019.
“Maida weighed 4 pounds, 1 ounce when she was born,” says Elvedina Walker, Maida’s mother. “She was like a precious miracle when we saw her, a beautiful gift from God.”
Although Maida was premature, she was strong, healthy and ready to experience life. But because of her weight, she was admitted into the NICU, where she required a little extra oxygen and a feeding tube to supplement her milk intake.
“She was putting on weight and was scheduled to go home at the end of six weeks, but after a final physical exam, the neonatologist, Dr. Jeevarathi Gnanaratnem, noticed her belly was a little bigger and more bloated than normal,” says Elvedina. “So she recommended an ultrasound and X-ray, just to be on the safe side.”
The test results were classified as suspect for Hirschsprung’s disease, a serious condition that affects the large intestine and causes problems passing stool due to missing nerves cells.
“Maida’s release was delayed and our hearts dropped,” says Elvedina. “But the NICU nurses were the best in keeping my husband Robert and I informed on what the disease was, and we all prayed that further test results were negative.”
Extraordinary care and strong bonds formed
Diez says that situations like these are what lead NICU staff to form strong ties to families. “We work in an intimate setting, get to know the families very well and spend extensive time with them,” says Diez. “It can also be a stressful time, so patients and nurses form strong bonds — caregivers become extensions of their family.”
Fortunately, Maida’s additional test results were negative, and Elvedina says she’s grateful to the nurses in the NICU for helping her during this critical time.
“All of the nurses provided extraordinary care and kindness. The professionalism they exhibited made the NICU a welcoming environment, which helped ease my anxiety of being separated from Maida and fear of taking care of a premature baby. They were knowledgeable and always available to answer my questions.”
She’s particularly grateful for the extended stay room that allowed her to assist with Maida’s initial feedings — every three hours — and to learn from the nurses. She says she would often sing to Maida during these times.
Annual reunion celebrates baby grads
On August 17, the hospital held its annual NICU reunion, attended by more than 200 people. The Walkers and other NICU families, whose children graduated and are now healthy and thriving, attended the celebration. NICU medical staff hugged and mingled with the kids, and took joy in how far they have come.
“It’s a time to reconnect and celebrate. Having the families come back each year, and seeing how far the children have come from the time they were babies in our NICU gives us great joy, and reenergizes us to keep doing what we do each and every day,” says Diez. “It’s also a day to celebrate how everyone’s lives are positively impacted by these children. The reunion is only one day, but gives us a boost that lasts us until the following year.”
As for Maida, she’s doing great. Her mom says, “One of our favorite things is how she sticks her tongue out; she did it so much early in my pregnancy, it was captured on one of the ultrasounds. I had the photo put on a coffee cup for her dad, his first Father’s Day gift from Maida. He loves it and uses it every day for his morning coffee.”
For the news media: To talk with a neonatologist about the Sharp Grossmont NICU for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.